AgriStability talks could dominate meetings

Federal, provincial and territorial ministers of agriculture will meet Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 to discuss improving business risk management programs. | Agriculture Canada photo

Ag ministers will likely focus on removing reference margin limit, but different cost share arrangement may be needed

Prairie agriculture ministers may be under pressure to pay up as they head into the first of two federal-provincial-territorial virtual meetings this week.

The agenda for the annual meetings on Nov. 20 and 27, delayed from July due to COVID-19, hasn’t been released but will include discussion on the perennial problem of AgriStability and how to fix it.

Most agree that removing the reference margin limit is key.

But any changes cost money and Saskatchewan agriculture minister David Marit said prairie governments can’t afford those costs at the traditional cost-share arrangement.

Federal minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has acknowledged some provinces are willing to contribute their share but others are cash-strapped.

An Ontario proposal earlier for Ottawa to pick up a larger share of the cost of any changes — 90 percent compared to its usual 60 percent — has not been accepted but Marit said Ottawa hasn’t come back with an alternative.

“We’d like to see a proposal from the federal government before we get to (the meeting) so I could at least have a discussion with my colleagues on what are the implications for Saskatchewan, what are the costs going to be, and we know it’s just short term and we know it’s not for 2020 so it can really only be for 2021, 2022,” he said in an interview.

Farm organizations have asked for AgriStability coverage to be returned to 85 percent of historical reference margins, rather than 70 percent, with no reference margin limit. The reference margin limit is 70 percent as well.

“There has likely never been a single issue or policy where Canadian farm organizations, across all commodities, have been so aligned,” said Markus Haerle, co-chair of the AgGrowth Coalition, in an October news release.

Removing the reference margin limit alone would cost Saskatchewan about $20 million if the provincial share of funding remains at 40 percent, Marit said. Changing the payment level back to 85 percent would cost about $27.5 million, according to federal estimates, but that’s where Marit believes private insurance has a role to play.

“Quite truthfully, they’re holding all the cards,” he said of Ottawa. “They have to tell us as provinces what they’re prepared to do. They’ve done it in every other instance where they’ve offered program money through COVID.

“They haven’t put anything on the table for us other than to say, no, the 60-40 stays where it is. That’s left all of us, especially on the Prairies, out of the room.”

Marit added he isn’t optimistic the federal government will budge.

He would also like to see changes to allowable expenses under AgriStability so that livestock producers could claim costs of producing their own feed.

Other topics expected to be on the agenda are temporary foreign workers and African swine fever.

A spokesperson for Manitoba minister Blaine Pedersen said he wouldn’t comment until after the meetings. Alberta minister Devin Dreeshen was unavailable before Western Producer deadlines.

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